Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Why Ofsted Downplays Special Needs In The Classroom

UK education watch dog Ofsted  claims that the term special needs is used too widely. Clearly this is highly charged issue involving the usual suspects of ego involvement and reactance all founded on your position based on your world view. This is an interesting classroom battle over the details of classroom management and the use of the label Special Needs.

What I find really interesting is the fact that what we are really witnessing is a battle of educational philosophy. If you ask yourself 'where does educational policy come from?' you are inexorably led to a philosophy that drives some beliefs and some actions.

Contemporary educational policy is based on the assumptions of Post Modernism. The relativist philosophy that on a good day encourages us to appreciate diversity and on a bad day mires us in hand wringing over what to do about 'all those differences' because there are no absolute standards that can be applied to anything. It also influences how problems are characterized and how solutions are formed. So.

Problem = children have challenges learning. Solution = provide customised education to the level of bespoke delivery because everyone has 'special needs'. The issue of course is connotation. Any label used to defined a so called real world phenomenon is open to alternative meanings. I think what Ofsted are saying is that the prevailing meaning is too sloppy, and the overuse of the term special needs characterizes the 'problem' of challenging situations in the classroom as 'the child with special needs' rather the dynamic capability of the teacher. I can hear howls of insult already. After all haven't teaching professionals been 'Kolb'd' up to the eyeballs (if we are lucky they might have been Mezirowed too!) They know all about 'learning styles' their text books describe the 'types' and these difficult children don't fit.

Teaching isn't easy (as a colleague of mine once said to me when I was whinging about the challenges of the job - that's why they pay you! - ouch) Like many 'managers' and executives, teachers are possibly prey to lacking a degree of critical self awareness of the founding philosophies that underpin their world views. Possibly unaware of their Post Modernist credentials, having been steeped in them through teacher training and pgce's, they will also be unaware of the emergence of philosophies such as Critical Realism that at one level reject the so called 'realities' of post modernism's linguistic turn. Maybe Ofsted aren't explicitly aware of the philosophy that under-girds their approach either.On their view the reality is a problem of dynamic teaching capability. It could very well be real too, and no doubt it hurts to hear it.

The special needs zealots also need to be mindful of labels too. Social psychologists call this altercasting. Label someone 'as if ' they have special needs and guess what they behave 'as if ' they have special needs. I'm not suggesting for a minute the issue is easy to resolve, I'm simply making the point that people with alternatives argue their differences on emotive issues rather than unpacking the underpinning points of philosophy. If this is the case then Ofsted and The Teaching Profession will simply play out a grotesque caricature of an unruly classroom! Then what? does that mean Teachers have 'special needs'too?

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